Cox News Service
Monday, March 14, 2005
ATLANTA A surveillance camera captured Brian G. Nichols' surprise attack on a Fulton County sheriff's deputy, but no one in the control center noticed the assault and sent help, said a law enforcement official who viewed the security tape.
The camera, one of more than 40 stationed through the Fulton County courthouse, showed 6-foot-1-inch Nichols overwhelming Deputy Cynthia Hall and escaping with her gun. Hall was escorting Nichols to a holding cell before his rape trial resumed.
Moments after the attack, which occurred before 9 a.m. Friday, witnesses say Nichols made his way through the courthouse and gunned down a judge, a court reporter and one of Hall's fellow deputies. Hours later he killed a federal agent.
Hall remained in critical condition with severe head injuries at Grady Memorial Hospital.
"It's not just horrible, it was preventable," said Senior Superior Court Judge Philip Etheridge.
But other courthouse veterans say sheriff's department policies would have to be rewritten and deputies retrained to prevent such an attack in the future. Hall, they said, followed accepted security procedures in dealing with a prisoner.
At 8:48 a.m. on Friday, Hall took a handcuffed Nichols from the detention area at the bottom of the downtown Justice Center Tower and put him in an elevator to take him to an eighth-floor holding area. There, Nichols was to change into his civilian clothes and resume a rape trial before Judge Rowland Barnes.
A video camera, which is supposed to be monitored by two guards in a command post, shows the two arriving in the holding area between two courtrooms, according to a law enforcement official who viewed the tape.
The video shows Hall guiding Nichols, whose hands are still handcuffed behind his back, face-first into one of two open cells.
Hall releases one cuff and turns Nichols around to unhook the remaining cuff, which is dangling from his wrist. She uncuffs him so he can change from a jail jumpsuit into street clothes.
The muscular, 33-year-old Nichols then lunges at Hall, knocking the petite, 51-year-old woman backward into another cell. Both disappear from camera view.
Because there is no audio recording with the camera, it is unclear whether Nichols shot Hall or caused her severe head injuries by hitting her with his fist and knocking her to the concrete floor.
Two to three minutes later, Nichols emerges from the cell, holding Hall's gun belt and police radio. He picks up her keys from the floor and locks her inside the cell. Nichols then goes into a nearby cell.
A couple of minutes later he emerges, dressed in civilian clothes. He locks the door behind him and saunters calmly out of the holding area, carrying the gun belt, according to the law enforcement official who viewed the tape. Nichols appears to know exactly which key to use to unlock the holding area door and enters a vacant courtroom on the eighth floor.
Nichols then crosses the bridge to the eighth floor of the adjacent old Fulton County courthouse. Minutes later, the shooting begins that mortally wounds Superior Court Judge Rowland Barnes and court reporter Julie Ann Brandau.
Nichols strolls into Barnes' office from a side doorway and herds a real estate lawyer, the judge's secretary and a case manager into the judge's private chambers. He then captures Deputy Grantley White, handcuffs him and put him into a closet.
Moments later, the hostages hear two gunshots and screaming. Witnesses say Nichols entered the courtroom from a door behind Barnes' bench and fatally shot him and Brandau.
It was only then that the first distress call went out.
White, who was handcuffed, stumbled out of a closet in Barnes' office and used his radio to broadcast a "Signal 63," indicating that an officer needed backup.
No deputies knew Hall was critically injured.
In the detention center of the Justice Center Tower, at least eight deputies took the elevator to the eighth floor on their way to Barnes' court. They hurried through the holding area where Nichols had left Hall, not realizing she was on a cell floor.
Barnes had requested additional security for Nichols' trial after deputies found two sharp door hinges in the defendant's shoes earlier in the week, said Gayle Abramson, the lead Fulton County prosecutor handling Nichols' case. At a news conference Saturday, Sheriff Myron Freeman said he didn't know whether Hall knew of the increased threat or whether extra precautions had been taken.
"She shouldn't have been there to start with," Judge Etheridge said, referring to the size disparity between Hall, a petite grandmother, and Nichols, a former college linebacker.
"There should have been at least two, possibly three, good-sized deputies and they should have been warned," Etheridge said.
It was unclear whether policies require deputies to secure their weapons before uncuffing a prisoner.
"My understanding is that they're not supposed to have a gun on them until the prisoner is handcuffed or shackled," Etheridge said. "But I don't know how frequently that is complied with."
A courthouse sergeant, who did not want to be named, said he thought it was a departmental policy to lock up guns before uncuffing inmates in the holding area. But he acknowledged that he and several others often skip that step.
A ranking sheriff official said that the policy hasn't been rewritten to mandate locking up the weapon.
"Common sense says you lock up the gun in the lockbox, but policy and common sense aren't always the same thing,"said another deputy with long experience in courthouse security.
The camera did not show whether Hall had locked her gun. In a confession Sunday, Nichols said he retrieved Hall's gun from a lockbox.
The key to the lockbox is typically on the same chain with keys that unlock handcuffs and the holding cell door.
Another security flaw, deputies noted, was that cells have solid doors. Ideally, a deputy should be able to lock a prisoner inside the cell and have the prisoner stick his or her hands through door slot to be cuffed or uncuffed to ensure the deputy's security.
"Whoever designed that area had never handled inmates before," said a courthouse security veteran.